Some Thoughts on 80s "bad-boys" Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney

“The Californication version of American literary history”

(Originally published in the Rockford Independent Press)

By BENJAMIN TAYLOR

So I’m normally going to use this space to highlight the amazing work our stellar crop of contemporary fictionists do, and will do so again in the next issue. Lately, however – and pursuant to a personal project – I’ve found myself lingering lovingly on the age-20ish works of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. And I will readily admit, I loathe Ellis with a passion verging on mania, but Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction are undeniably magnetic and – at least to this 20something born in the 80s – represent my impression of the decade better than anything John Hughes ever filmed (though may he RIP). Pretty sure only Heathers even comes close.

And Bright Lights, Big City remains the novel Hunter S. Thompson would have written had he not burned himself out and had he been U-30 in the 80s. Precise, evocative, frankly brilliant writing that just captures everything it must have been to have been young in New York in that era. And yes, I freely admit to romanticizing the idea of the drug-addled, promiscuous, quite insane writer wreaking havoc on him/herself and everyone he/she knows. But Bright Lights, Big City is authentically brilliant.

McInerney I only encountered a couple years ago, working at an indie outside of Boston when he published his (too-soon) retrospective short story collection How It Ended. Picking that book up and reading about the unnamed narrator (whom it is safe to assume, is Jay McInerney) in the story “It’s 6 A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” – the first and best-penned chapter of Bright Lights, Big City – was akin to being 17 and randomly coming across Fear and Loathing and Bob Dylan. Just electric.

Less Than Zero offers a similar experience – one of those novels you come across at a certain age and think to yourself “holy shit, I didn’t know you could do this with fiction.” Yet where McInerney’s characters – in the purview of Bright Lights, Big City for the purpose of this column, but I think applicable to his characters broadly – are tragically flawed in the Hank Moody sense, where you pretend to avert your eyes from the trainwreck, yet sympathize deeply with the flaw part, Ellis’s are just nihilistic in the most straightforward definition possible.

Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero, is an unmitigated ass. His attitude toward copious quantities of coke – similar to the narrator of Bright Lights, Big City – is, to keep it understated, liberal, and his attitude toward women is that they’re walking holes into which he will do everything in his power to insert himself. For McInerney, the desire to fuck anything that moves is no different – yet the narrator of Bright Lights, Big City feels deeply the loss of Amanda. He recognizes that he fucked things up, but actually feels. Clay’s attitude toward Blair, for instance, is that she has a vagina.

This is an extremely important distinction between Ellis and McInerney, and illustrates how thin the line between asshole with a pen and “bad-boy” writer is. McInerney deals with actual people, flawed to the extreme, yes, but believable, and people with whom even the casual reader can identify with in some sense. There’s a sense of universality about his work, which resonates – yes, the 80s are over, and to quote Eric Stoltz as Lance, “coke is fucking dead as… dead,” but the damaged fuck-up capable of real emotion is a character who’s been with us since Odysseus. Ellis’s characters are familiar as well, just never that interesting. Yes they’re “depraved,” but with reference to an era most of us are unfamiliar with, and are unimpressed by. They fuck, snort, use each other, blow cash on blow, etc. etc. etc. It just isn’t compelling once the shock value becomes dated.

I mentioned Hunter S. Thompson earlier and for a reason – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a book that centers on extreme drug use and otherwise insane behaviors, but is a book about the end of an era. The peak of Thompson’s writing – in that book, any others, and any article with the possible exception of the Derby piece – comes in the passage where he’s sitting at his typewriter, thinking about San Francisco and the 60s – “that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…” McInerney perfectly captures that elegiac lost idealism; all Ellis can do is wank off about his fantasized version of it. With Ellis, there’s no passion, because there’s no belief in anything but the pleasure of the moment. And no, it’s not ironic – he’s made quite a successful career out of nihilism. His recent sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, just reconfirms that. Yes, the few-standard-deviations-from-your-typical-Midwestern-family behavior is a draw, but Thompson and McInerney get at the human being shit. Ellis, I’m sure, fancies himself quite an aficionado of assholes – the human shit, though? Negatory.

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~ by Benji on 16 July 2011.

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